AP Auto Racing Writer
TALLADEGA, Ala. — Thank goodness Dale Earnhardt Jr. showed dignity in defeat after he was bounced from NASCAR’s playoffs.
The class shown by NASCAR’s most popular driver in not criticizing the outcome was the one positive takeaway from a bad ending to Sunday’s elimination race at Talladega Superspeedway. At least four drivers accused series champion Kevin Harvick of manipulating the finish, and an overwhelming pro-Earnhardt crowd left dissatisfied when a change to the rules prevented him from racing for the win.
It was a win he had to have, too, to advance into the third round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. But NASCAR said last week that in an effort to maintain some semblance of safety, it would make just one attempt to finish the race under the green flag instead of the usual three tries.
Earnhardt supported the decision before the race, and didn’t change his mind after Harvick hooked Trevor Bayne on the restart to trigger an 11-car crash that froze the field before Earnhardt had a chance to chase leader Joey Logano into the first turn.
“I feel like no matter the rules, when the race is over, I can live with the result as long as everyone else is going by the same rules,” Earnhardt said. “Per the rule book, it sorted out and I finished second. I’m OK with that.”
His fans showered Logano’s car with beer cans.
Their anger may have been misdirected.
Harvick knew he had a problem with his engine and knew his car likely wouldn’t go on the restart. Had he forfeited his position in the running order — a move one would only do as a courtesy to avoid a potential pileup — it’s likely the reigning series champion would have plummeted in the standings and have been eliminated from the Chase.
So he was told over his team radio to block as many cars as he could on the restart, an attempt to cling to the best finish possible. Instead, Bayne shot around Harvick’s slowed car then tried to cut back in front of him to get back in line. The in-car camera appears to show Harvick looking constantly in his rearview mirror in an apparent effort to ward off any more cars. The replay, though, seems to indicate he turned right into Bayne’s bumper to spin him and bring out the race-ending caution.
Among those questioning Harvick’s intent were Bayne and David Gilliland. Far more direct in their accusation of race manipulation were Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin, who were both eliminated from the playoffs when the caution flag came out.
NASCAR has so far said only that its review of the incident showed Harvick did nothing on purpose.
Doesn’t matter, though. It’s a bad look for the champ, who already this Chase has shoved Jimmie Johnson, left without comment after running out of fuel at New Hampshire and then was accused by other teams of intentionally damaging his race-winning car at Dover to avoid a thorough NASCAR inspection.
NASCAR should be extremely sensitive to accusations of race manipulation, particularly since the 2013 fiasco at Richmond in which Michael Waltrip Racing used a series of maneuvers to put a driver in the Chase. It took NASCAR almost a week to sort out all the shenanigans and it was made clear by chairman Brian France that manipulating races was a very serious crime.
With MWR, there were several smoking guns of intent. This time, it’s impossible to prove that Harvick deliberately turned right into Bayne to save his season.
And even if NASCAR wanted to punish Harvick, there’s no easy cleanup. NASCAR can’t undo the final restart, in which Hamlin was caught in the wreck. NASCAR also can’t give Earnhardt and Kenseth the chance to race for the victory both needed to advance.
A points penalty against Harvick wouldn’t do much. All he has to do is win one of the next three races — and this stretch includes Phoenix, where he’s won four straight and five of the last six — to advance to the championship.
But cleaning up the cloud surrounding Harvick is just one part of the problem.
Talladega under no circumstances should be an elimination race because it’s a crapshoot and simply not fair to drivers racing for the championship. With so much on the line, their fate shouldn’t be so out of their control at the unpredictable, high-banked track.
NASCAR knew well before Sunday that the chances of the field successfully racing to the finish without wrecking were slim to none, so it altered the green-white-checkered flag rule for one particular race — and even that one attempt at finishing under green was useless.
Since everyone knew a wreck was more than likely, why even bother with the charade? Just let the race finish under the original caution and save everyone the post-race headaches that seem to be a Talladega staple.